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Reel mowers vs. rotary mowers

June 1, 2008


The weather has turned hot, as it likes to here in Virginia. That means that it’s time to raise the cutting height on cool season grasses to 4″ or so, if you’ve been cutting at a lower height. It’s also the time of year that I’ve decided to switch from the gas-powered rotary mower to the human-powered reel mower.

We closed on our house in December of ’05, and I bought the reel mower the following spring. Having never used one, the reel mower seemed like one of those “my gosh, why have I never thought of using this?!” kind of products. Eager to cut my lawn in non-polluting silence, I swung by Sears on the way home one day and picked up my mower.

That spring had warmed up pretty quickly, and by the time I had gotten around to assembling my mower the grass was around 6″ tall. No problem, I thought, and made my first pass. It was pretty cool to see the blades of grass getting chopped up in front of me and flying out of the mower, and I felt confident that this mower would be way easier than I had heard. I got to the other side of the lawn, turned around, and… it looked the same. Most of the grass just got pushed over by the mower. A few more attempts later, I got out the weed eater and trimmed the entire lawn, then went back with the reel mower. I soon discovered that unless I mowed every 3-5 days when the grass was growing vigorously, I had to pre-trim the entire lawn before cutting. So much for lowering my inputs. The quality of cut was not what I was used to, either. Rather than a smooth green carpet, the lawn was irregularly shaggy in spots. By the end of August I threw in the towel and stopped cutting my fenced-in back yard. In December, I bought a gas-powered rotary mower and cut my foot-high grass.

Last year, I gave up any pretense of trying and just cut with the rotary mower all season. Despite what the box it came in said, its top cutting height is 2.5″, not 4. That, combined with the drought, meant that my grass was brown and ratty by the end of June.


So what did I learn? More to the point, if it was that much of a hassle, why would I go back to using a reel mower? It’s simple: the benefits of a reel mower outweigh the drawbacks:

  • My goal is to have a low-input lawn. Because I still have to work and have a life, I’ve compromised. During the spring and fall, when the grass grows the fastest and days are cool, I cut with the rotary mower. It’s easier to stay caught up, and it takes me less time to cut during my busiest times of year.
  • A reel mower cuts the grass very cleanly, because it essentially slices into the blade of grass like scissors. A rotary mower’s blade spins around at over 100 mph and tears the grass blade at the point of impact. My commercial mowers get sharpened every 8 hours; my personal mower is a whole other story. If your grass  looks brown at the tips after mowing, it may be time to sharpen your blades.
  • Like I said, my reel mower cuts higher than my rotary mower. It’s well known that cutting your grass to 4″ or so helps it survive with less water, as it shields its own roots. Taller grass also shades weed seeds to prevent them from germinating. The reason I gave up in August was because while my neighbors’ lawns had turned dusty and brown, my grass was still lush and vigorous. When I finally cut it short that fall, I found that it had choked out almost all the weeds!
  • Most importantly, in my opinion, when I’m cutting with a rotary mower I’m focusing on nothing but the lawn immediately in front of the mower. The reel mower suits my personality better, because it somehow feels ok to get distracted and wander away for a few minutes (I’m totally a “hey look! a squirrel!” kind of distractable person). This is actually a good thing, because what’s pulling me away is the sight of something unusual on one of my plants. I don’t get to soend nearly as much time in the yard as I would like, so when I’m mowing is my best chance to spot aphids, or spider mites, or any other issues.

Unfortunately, I feel that reel mowers don’t have a place in professional lawn maintenance, at least not yet. My mower has a 20″ wide cutting surface, but since overlapping is so critical I’m lucky to get a 15″ wide cut. Even if I could get a 48″ wide cutter made, I doubt I could push it long enough to do one lawn. I wouldn’t recommend insisting that someone cut your lawn with a reel mower, because it would cost you a LOT of money. Instead, if you’re using a lawn service, make sure they’re cutting at the right height with sharp blades. Also- and I may anger some colleagues with this- if your property is less than an acre, try to avoid having it cut with a riding mower. A zero-turn mower can weigh anywhere from 1000 to 1800 pounds, not counting the operator. That’s the equivalent of driving a compact car back and forth in your yard every week. On the other hand, a 48 inch commercial walk behind weighs around 400 pounds. Less weight= less compaction= healthier, happier grass. On a bigger property it becomes a trade-off. Sure, you could find someone to cut your three acres with a walk behind, but you’ll pay a premium. They’re just not built for that kind of production mowing.

Feel free to send me an email if you have any questions about reel mowers. I think they’re a great way to go if you have a small yard, and I’d love to be one of many cutting that way!

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